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Issue #73: Remember
The year's last issue brings the newsletter's 50 best anime songs of 2023 and a hit from Sukeban Deka, along with the usual 3 singles
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter on Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
Back in January, I found myself spoiled with a load of great new anison singles, enough for me to blog about some of them. The hits kept on coming throughout 2023 from voice actors as well as anime shows and franchises, and I soon began to realize I could potentially mock up a year-end list from how much I’ve saved. So here you have it: my favorite 50 anison releases of 2023.
The external factors behind some of the most popular anison releases made for a bigger story this year than any musical trends or styles. Viral TikTok dances. Billboard chart dominance. Driving exponential growth in the sale of instruments. It’s only reflective of the J-pop industry in general, where a song can’t just be a song to be a hit but rather a part of a larger meme. As if voice actors didn’t already have to be able to take on roles outside of their central gig as singers, idols, instrumentalists, they now have to add “influencer” to their resume, learning the dances spread by their respective songs.
As far as anison is concerned as just for music sake, my favorite releases established a unique character as they basked in their own world. The scene showcased a wide range of musical styles as well as moods and personalities. But the best songs were engrossing in their own way whether they got emotionally swept away by flowery string arrangements, indulged in cuteness via squeaky voices and sprightly funk, or brooded about existential anguish to the tune of jagged math rock.
Here are my 50 favorite anison songs from 2023 with personal blurbs written for the top 10. Selections were eligible as long as they were recorded by a voice actor or were a part of an anime franchise. And here is a Spotify playlist of this list.
1) “My Own Story” by Minori Suzuki
For a song accompanied by such a boundless, soaring string arrangement, “My Own Story” shines a light on a narrator so weighed down to the point of near immobility. “A whirlwind rises, and I held my breath / I want to go / but I still can’t,” Suzuki Minori opens the song, frustrated from her own reservation to dive into the unknown and move forward like the rest of the world. And it’s her struggle to envision what can possibly lie on the next chapter of her story, so to speak, that cuts the deepest. While the chorus blooms with optimism as the voice actress marches along despite her self-doubt, I also can’t help but think of its lyrics as a sweet little lie she tells herself so her endeavors aren’t entirely hopeless and meaningless: “Ahead of the pages that I’ll keep turning / will be a day I’ll understand all of this wasn’t a waste.” Whether or not those lyrics contain the truth, I can only hope that having faith in the outcome can take her far and away from her misery.
2) “Idol” by YOASOBI
Many parts animate “Idol” from its multimedia engagements to Ayase’s bombastic production, bolstered by gothic chorales as well as blaring trap brass and snare rolls. But the histrionics powering it is all in service of the titular idol, dramatized by the song’s moving pieces almost into a religious figure. Her biography is delivered expertly by Ikura, who bobs and weaves through the athletic top line and shifting lyrical styles with ease. Her performance of perfection inspires admiration from her followers yet it’s her character flaws that drive the core of this anthem: “And I’ll lie again / with the hope these words turn into the truth,” Ikura sings from the perspective of Oshi No Ko’s Ai Hoshina before she steps on stage, fulfilling the fantasy mutually built between her and her fans.
3) “Chu, Tayousei” by Ano
No matter how ill-mannered Ano got on TV, variety shows kept inviting her back this year as to encourage her behavior but also to let the former idol squirm: no one looked more uncomfortable hanging out with other entertainers in the studio than Ano. Despite her visible discomfort, she secretly welcomed the attention—she signed up for a hell of a lot of CM appearances at the very least—and it’s this vulgar, tsundere appeal that’s at the heart of “Chu, Tayousei,” the song that propelled her to mainstream stardom.
“Chu, Tayousei” is an earworm by design from its rhyme-first wordplay to loop-de-loop melody, the zippy chorus collapsing lyrics into mere onomatopoeia; its viral TikTok choreography further obscures meaning in favor of the pure stickiness of its lyrical components. All this prime engineering to steer a hook driven by rather disgusting imagery, but it’s precisely this juvenile detail that’s the fuel behind the generated craze: the song would be as half as fun to interact with had Ano not sung “gero-chuu,” or vomit-kiss, in the chorus. Ano drew a mass crowd through spewing venom, all starting from “Chu, Tayousei.”
4) “Dramatic Ja Nakuttemo” by Kana Hanazawa
Despite being blessed in the moment spent with her significant other, Kana Hanazawa can’t help but dwell on the fact that it can all vanish at any given time in “Dramatic Ja Nakuttemo.” Though her anxiety isn’t unfounded, you wish she turns her attention instead to the finer things happening right in the present, especially as the flowery orchestral arrangement presents the idyllic scene laid out in front of her. But her mourning of lost time ultimately leads her to gain clarity of what matters most: “Even if it wasn’t dramatic, even if I moan that it’s all boring / I’ll remember this day,” she sings with newfound appreciation for even the mundane.
5) “Shikou” by Saori Hayami
Frantic pianos and searing guitars electrify “Shikou,” and they imbue the arrangement with heated urgency while bringing the heft and dramatics familiar to Saori Hayami’s past material. The production send the song skyward, hardly offering the voice actress a moment of rest. And yet she answers to the music with equal intensity. “Let’s escape / by pulling hope overflowing / from our fragile wounds,” she sings in the decadent chorus with might, pushing her hushed vocals to the brink. After a series of stately ballads last year, “Shiko” restores in Hayami’s music a vital sense of momentum.
Welcome to the last issue of 2023! This issue might be on the shorter side since I don’t have an Album of the Week. I spent a bit too much time working on the blurbs for the list above as well as a few more year-end lists on pipeline—keep your eyes peeled! It was either I half-ass an album review about a record I wasn’t entirely sold on and do away with the singles, or write about singles I’m enthusiastic about and no album review. Safe to say, I went with the latter, and I think it reads better for you and me. What’s more exciting is that I have my first guest writer for the Oricon flashback, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have a fitting pairing of record and writer.
Oh, the next issue of Idol Watch for September and October is postponed or it might be cancelled altogether. I don’t know what my work load looks like for next month, and I might be using the time to really focus on the year-end lists instead of the column.
“Remember” by Fellsius [Trekkie Trax]
Fellsius delivers explosive firepower with feather-light grace, his growling future-bass beat drops constructed with a granular attention to detail. And for the title track to his latest Remember EP, the producer dips into the sentimental. A shimmery grand-piano passage awakens a series of ebullient synths but also the titular vocal sample that imbues the music with a pang of wistful nostalgia. The quaking drop at the pique that could crumble the flimiest tracks, and yet it hardly disrupts the quietude of “Remember” as the track continues to indulge in its sweet reminiscences.
Remember EP is out now. Listen to it on Bandcamp/Spotify.
“Hana” by Fujii Kaze [Universal Sigma / HEHN]
A.G. Cook’s recent works in J-pop has dealt with rather stern production, deepening the tension found in negative space. So it’s refreshing to hear him now play with levity for his collaboration with Fujii Kaze. Perhaps the adult-contemporary tempo of “Hana” is a bit stilting for the singer, especially following the latter’s bouncy R&B helmed with Yaffle. But the drifter’s pace is a product reflective of Kaze’s unserious personality that’s placed in great display here. “Even though you’re swayed by all the shapes and forms / there will be a day it will all seem delightful,” he sings in the happy-go-lucky chorus without a stress in his bone. It’s a naive word of advice that could do well for the self-loathing cast of Ichiban Suki Na Hana, the drama that “Hana” serves as its ending song.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Always refreshing” by futurina [4JC]
Futurina’s aloof guitar riffs in “Always refreshing” sound much breezier than the stark, scorched-earth post-hardcore of their listed influences like Penfold and Rainer Maria. But along the light strumming, vocalist Rina sings in a tone and perspective as fatalistic as the ‘90s emo greats. “I just can’t go anywhere anymore,” she sighs as the guitars gives a modest roar. “I just couldn’t tell you / I just wanted to sulk in my impatience.” The rhythm section nonchalantly drifts on without acknowledging its frontwoman, who’s overwhelmed by the uncontrollable speed of life. Driven by despondence, the title starts to sting with a bit of cruel irony.
Always refreshing / Elephant is out now. Listen to it on Bandcamp.
This Week in 1987…
For this issue’s Oricon flashback, I’m excited to have the column’s first guest writer with words by Farfromsleep! Their knowledge on the cult TV series Sukeban Deka made for a perfect fit to discuss this particular number-one. Enjoy!
“Remember” by Kazama Sanshimai [Hummingbird, 1987]
“My memories are like an everlasting vivid portrait… swaying in my heart”
As far as ending themes go, “Remember” might not win any awards for conceptual originality. That said, it’s still an unusually strong example of the form. The wistful synths and gated snares are grounded to a bass line that balances an insistent, pulsing rhythm in the verses; bright stabs of brass accent the driving slap lines to bring the energy levels up when it matters. Harmonies appear sparingly, drifting around the edges to add subtle dashes of colour, until the main chorus rises to a group vocal and unites the alternating voices to compelling effect. In the end, the song is mournful without ever being pitiful while giving all three featured singers—Yui Asaka, Yuka Ohnishi, and Yuma Nakamura—their space to shine.
In hindsight, “Remember” resembles the final form of the symbiotic relationship between idols and the cultural launchpad that was Toei’s Sukeban Deka franchise. Yuki Saito’s star-making turn as the titular Saki Asamiya in the first season had been thought to be a hard act to follow until the stratospheric rise of Yoko Minamino proved just how wrong that statement was. The rising success of a widely popular action TV drama with a focus on a young female cast had led to a series that seemed custom built to level up an idol’s career. Asaka would be no exception with her becoming the third Saki Asamiya2 alongside co-stars Ohnishi and Nakamura as her canonical sisters.
While the cast of Sukeban Deka II enjoyed chart success to varying degrees, it wasn’t until season three’s Kazama sisters that all three of the core cast finally had the chance to perform together on the same promotional single. And “Remember” was also the show’s ending theme as the series drew towards a close in its entirety. This combined attack paid off handsomely with the single charting 14 weeks on the Oricon, turning out to be somewhat of a last great musical hurrah for a series that had been such a vital part of the decade. Examined in a vacuum, “Remember” is a decent contender as a pop single in its own right. With the sheer amount of momentum behind it, it was all but unstoppable.
Whether as a result of a divergent third season that had been somewhat awkwardly retrofitted from another concept entirely, or some perceived need to shake things up even further, Toei decided against a fourth season of Sukeban Deka. They instead went for a fresh start with the clearly Deka-derived series Shoujo Commando Izumi and attempted to launch a new star in the unknown Izumi Igarashi, but both the show and Igarashi quickly faded after the initial buzz had passed, destined to become a footnote as a minor cult classic. The public wasn’t as interested without the crucial idol foundation of her predecessors, or it was possibly just the inevitable end result of a craze having run its natural course. —Farfromsleep
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This link is a particularly cute “in-character” performance and I think the callbacks to the previous seasons are a nice touch!
“Asamiya Saki” became a code name assumed by the respective season’s titular character from Sukeban Deka II on.